By Suzanne Moulton
(Links on this page take you to the Old Town,Nos Histoires de l'Ile site, to return to this paper, hit your back button)
"It always felt like home....a loving and wonderful place." That is how Paulette Ferland describes French Island, le petit Canada located across the bridge from Old Town, Maine, and home to hundreds of French families throughout the second half of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. The island's official name is Treat and Webster Island, but it has forever been known to those who live there and those who live near as "French Island."
As a child growing up in Old Town, I went to school with many of the Franco children from the Island, and my sense of the Island community was that it was tightly-knit and culturally "different" from what I experienced living in town. I often envied the Island kids because they seemed to share a special bond; they belonged to what seemed to me a special "club" of sorts, one in which I was denied membership by virtue of my being "from town." Because I attended the French parochial school in town, the majority of my classmates were from the Island - French and Catholic. When the school day ended, they headed off in noisy clusters across the bridge to their "special place," while I headed in the opposite direction to my boring and seemingly isolated home on a "just plain street" in town. What rankled me even more was the fact that I, too, had Franco roots - my mother was born and raised in Fort Kent of parents whose families crossed the border from Canada into Maine during the 19th century. Many of her relatives still lived in Fort Kent and several even lived in Canada; all spoke French at home and many could barely communicate in English when they came to visit or we visited them. Why, then, couldn't I belong to the Island culture?
This image of the Island as a "cultural club" of sorts came back to me when I thought about my interview for this class. What better way to fulfill the assignment than to speak with some of those old acquaintances from the Island and get their impressions of what it was like to live there. Was I correct in thinking of it as a place of security and tight friendships? Was it really culturally different? Did they like heading across the bridge, away from town, when the school day ended - or was my envy misplaced? To answer my questions, I interviewed three women in their fifties who either grew up on the Island or lived there for at least some portion of their youth. All three came from extended French families, many of whom still live on the Island; two are cousins. None of the three live on the Island now, but all three live in the Old Town area and continue to visit the Island regularly.
By way of embracing the reality of these women's Franco roots, I have
added hyperlinks to photographs of all three women and their families,
from the website for Nos Histoires de l'Ile, the title of both a
book and an organization on the Island that is committed to preserving
the Franco-American history of the people who lived there in the past and
live there still (http://www.old-town.org/nos/).
Paulette Michaud Ferland's family lived on French Island when she was born. Her parents, Benoit Felix Michaud and Annette Edna Marquis Michaud, shared a two-family home with Paulette's aunt and uncle Clair and Adeline Cates and their three children. Her paternal grandparents, Willy and Alvine Michaud, lived just in front of them and her maternal grandparents, Henry and Alice Chouinard Marquis, lived just a couple of streets away. What she remembers about her home is that there was always family all around and that she felt loved and secure. Even though she and her family moved from the Island when she was in the fourth grade, she still thinks of the Island as "home," and she visits there at least once a month. Her parents' decision to move to the countryside outside Old Town, about three miles or so from the Island, was based on the decision that they should own their own land and have more room for their six children. In spite of living off the Island, Paulette remembers many family gatherings at the homes of her grandparents and other relatives on the Island - gatherings that were always filled with music - including someone playing the spoons - , laughter, dancing, good food, and frequent "talent shows."
That propensity for family gatherings has translated over the years into the tradition of holding a huge family reunion every five years, where over 500 relatives appear carrying both traditional French food and purely American fare. Paulette says the affair lasts the entire weekend, with social time starting things off on Friday night, with food, drink, stories, and laughter. Saturday brings a huge picnic with more food, games, and laughter, followed by group attendance at the Catholic Church in Old Town for those who wish. Saturday night caps things off with a huge affair - a talent show that "goes on to the wee hours of the morning," with family skits and other grand productions. Her uncle Albert Michaud is the family historian, and he keeps records of these family reunions, as well as of all the other family events.
Paulette was not named for anyone in her family - her mother just liked the name "Paulette." She does not remember ever being called by a nickname, though now some friends call her "Polly" or "Pollywog" - the latter an ironic twist on the somewhat derisive label of "frog" that she remembers all the French Islanders being called when she was a child. Her Mother was never called by a nickname, either, but her Dad was always known simply as "Ben." Paulette laughs when she talks about Ben - she says he was "notorious" around town and she believes "everyone living in Old Town can spin a story" about her Dad. Ben Michaud was one of a large family, most of whom still live, or lived until their death, on or near the Island. Family togetherness does not end with death for this family, however - virtually all the family members who have died are buried together in the Catholic cemetery in Great Works, just across the river from the Island - "husbands, wives, children, all together."
When asked if she thought of herself as "Franco" when she was young, Paulette says "No." She knew she was French, but the idea of a label such as "Franco" just didn't occur, to her or anyone else in her family. Her parents and grandparents all spoke French in the home when Paulette and her siblings were growing up, but the children were spoken to only in English by the time Paulette reached the age of kindergarten. Her older siblings maintained the use of the language longer, and Paulette seems puzzled at the sudden halt when she was only five - "I never knew WHY," she says, "why my parents spoke to us in French in the home during those early years, but then suddenly stopped during the mid-'50s. I think it was because it seemed to be the 'practical' thing to do, since we would be expected to speak only English in school." This was especially true for Paulette, since she left the parochial school after grade four and moved to a public school for the remainder of her elementary and high school years. Her older siblings, however, stayed at the parochial school through the eighth grade and also spoke French longer at home. Still, though her paternal grandparents spoke both French and English, her maternal grandparents spoke only French, so Paulette and her siblings communicated to them in French - though she is not even sure how she knew how to do so. She says she thinks of her grandparents as "forever young," though they seemed to have been "born with white hair." "They were always full of spunk and did not act the way you would expect 85-year olds to act."
Now, as an adult, Paulette says she definitely thinks of herself as Franco, though she does not speak French and does not follow many of the family traditions within her own home, mostly perhaps because she and her husband have no children of their own. Paulette's husband is also Franco, hailing from Rumford, Maine, where he attended parochial school through grade eight. She says they talk "late at night as couples do," and share stories about their childhoods. "We were brought up so much alike we could have been brother and sister....We share the same exact stories. It is amazing! I think that is why we get along so wonderfully - we are the same inside - same culture." Her husband, however, does not really speak of being Franco American, Paulette says: "It's not that he is ashamed of it, just that it isn't important to him as it is to me."
While Paulette feels more Franco than ever at this point in her life, she has left behind one of the most significant aspects of her Franco culture - the Catholic Church. When Paulette became an adult, she left the Church and joined a Baptist congregation out in the countryside where she lived. When the pastor left that church to move to another congregation 25 miles away, Paulette followed him to his new church, thus she now drives about 52 miles round trip to attend services every Sunday. Her husband does not accompany her but she has many friends at the church who have become like family to her. Her Franco culture of close relationships, laughter, and warmth know no religious boundaries.
Laughter, warmth, and sincerity are very real components of Paulette's personality. She is a delight to talk to and makes people feel very comfortable as soon as they meet her. That kind of personality comes naturally to her, given that she feels she was most influenced by her mother, whom she describes like this:
"My mother...a gentle, kindhearted, warm, loving spirit. She was the kind of person who would have sat up with a total stranger through the night to see them through a difficult time or the end of their life. A more faithful person you would not find. I try to fashion my life as she lived hers and I am very proud when people who knew her say, 'You remind me so much of your mother!'"
Paulette's mother had a sense of independence as a young girl. When she graduated from high school, she went to Bath Iron Works to be a riveter as part of the World War II home front efforts. There she "somehow got hooked up with the Army," joining the Army Nurse Corps.
She remained in the Army for two years, returning to French Island and getting "hooked up" with Paulette's father upon her return. Paulette's says "It seemed funny to me that they grew up within a mile of each other [on the Island], their parents were the best of friends, played cards together and all; all of my grandparents were solid Democrats and politically involved in rallies and such, but my parents never really saw each other in a dating sort of light," until after they returned from the war. Paulette now has her mother's hope chest, which her parents bought her when she graduated from high school in 1942. It is the one heirloom she possesses from her large family. Luck was on her side when it came time to decide who would be the proud possessor of the special chest: "We all went out to a restaurant and after enjoying a meal together, we put all six children's names in a bowl and someone chose a name and that name was mine....when something happens to me, it goes back to my family (brothers and sisters)."
Aside from her parents' post-war romance, Paulette remembers only one other family love story. Her Dad drove his "baby brother" Roger from French Island to New York City one day to meet the Queen Elizabeth, the ship on which his wartime bride was arriving from England. They married promptly, raised a family, and were together until the day he died.
Having grown up "knowing she was French" but not feeling that made her different or unique in any way, Paulette is amazed to remember a story her aunt and grandmother told of an event that was, without doubt, her aunt's most memorable experience. "It was late evening and there was suddenly a lot of excitement and people running about on the Island. My grandmother quickly gathered the children and herded them into a darkened room, where she closed the shades and shut the door. My aunt was just a child but she remembers it to this day, as vividly as though it were yesterday. All the men on the Island armed themselves with pitchforks, hammers, and shovels - anything they could get their hands on that would serve as a weapon" - and they marched down to the bridge where the Island connected to the mainland. Word had spread through the Island community that a large band of Ku Klux Klan members, hiding behind their white sheets and hoods, were planting a cross to burn as a threat to the French people living on the Island. By the time the men arrived at the bridge, the cross was burning brightly, lighting up the night sky with its dreadful flames of intolerance and hatred. The time was the mid-1920s, when Francos throughout the state were being targeted by the Klan. Paulette's family, as well as all the other Franco residents on the Island, were terrified of this threat to their security, and the remembrance of the event has lasted throughout the years and is told and retold to children and grandchildren. Paulette says her aunt, who still lives in the same house eighty years later, believed the world was coming to an end. She was too young to understand exactly what was happening, but she knew the level of terror that pervaded the Island community meant something truly horrific was happening.
What an incredible difference there is between the foregoing scene and
the sense of security, warmth, and love Paulette felt growing up on the
very same Island and even now when she returns to visit.
Rebecca Nadeau-Oliver is a cousin to Paulette Ferland; her mother and Paulette's father were sister and brother. These two women share many of the same memories of family, especially the large family gatherings, both as children and again as adults who attend the huge family reunions every five years. In addition, Rebecca's father's family, the Nadeaus, have their own family reunion on a yearly basis, though it is not as large since her father, Walter, was the only one of six children in the family who survived long enough into adulthood to add to the family tree. He did a commendable job of it, however, adding seven new Nadeaus to the line. Of the seven, Rebecca is the only one who was not named for someone else in the family, though that decision was definitely a last minute one: "I was supposed to be named Alexis, a long-standing family name and one that my grandfather, nieces, nephews, and younger brother all share. But my mother shared a hospital room with a woman who thought she was having a girl, whom she wished to name Rebecca. The roommate had a boy instead," and so Rebecca's mother grabbed the name for her own little girl because she liked it so well.
Rebecca was born at the Home Private Hospital in Old Town and lived until the age of two at her family home on Seventh Street. At two, she and her family moved to French Island, where they bought a home. Both sets of her grandparents lived there, and both of her parents had been born and raised there; her mother has remained there since the death of Rebecca's father. Her maternal grandparents ran a restaurant on the Island, and her paternal grandparents ran the IGA store that her great-grandfather had started years before. It was the first store on the Island and boasted the only telephone for quite some time. Rebecca remembers family members having to run to other people's houses to carry phone messages or tell them they had a call.
Hard work was very well known in Rebecca's family. Her maternal grandfather (and Paulette's paternal grandfather), Willie, ran a logging camp and his wife, Alvine, was the "cookie" at the camp, both very typical jobs for Franco-American immigrants during the last century. In addition to working in the woods, Willie was known as a healer. One story that has been passed down through the family is of a time when Willie was in the woods with other loggers and one of them got shot in the leg and was bleeding profusely. Other loggers ran to get help, and upon their return to the scene, found the injured logger not only had stopped bleeding but was up and about and feeling quite well. This was only one of the times when Willie was called upon to mend or cure his compatriots. Alvine was known, as well, for her psychic powers. Rebecca's father Walter was the postmaster in Old Town and her mother Doris (Michaud) worked as a welder in Presque Isle during World War II, then worked as a seamstress at home while she cared for her family of seven. Even Rebecca carried on what she calls a Franco tradition of early to work, earning change for making coffee runs for the post office workers when she was only in second grade. During her high school years, she had a newspaper route, babysat, and worked in a restaurant owned by her aunt and uncle. She had chores at home as well, though cleaning the bathroom was her least favorite one of all.
Like Paulette and all of their siblings and cousins, Rebecca attended parochial school in Old Town, kindergarten through eighth grade. She, too, spoke French at home until she reached school age. She concurs with Paulette's assessment that it was a matter of practicality for the children to make the switch from French to English since they would be expected to speak only English in school, even at École St. Joseph, the French Catholic school where instruction in "proper" French was an important part of the curriculum. Rebecca feels that there was also some pressure to leave the French behind because there was a sense that "it was considered bad to be French," though she never felt that to be true herself. She believes that her mother, however, did try "to put as much Frenchness behind her as possible," because she saw "being Frenchy" as a class issue. In retrospect, Rebecca is very sorry that the language and "Frenchness" disappeared from her everyday life as a child. Still, she says, she listened very carefully when the adults spoke French at home because that usually meant they were saying something they did not want the kids to hear. She speaks French only rarely now, but is extremely proud that her son has adopted French as his course of study, is very fluent in it, and considers it "an important part of his heritage."
When asked if she had considered herself "Franco" as a child, her response was almost identical to Paulette's: she "knew she was French" and from the Island, but that was just their reality - "it was all we knew." As an adult, she recognizes her French background but does not call herself "Franco."
Rebecca says she "loved being from the Island." It was a wonderful place to live because "there were always kids around, everyone knew everyone else, and it was fun and SAFE" - they played outside late at night and never felt at risk. She did not feel separated from other people who did not live on the Island, though she feels her sister did. Her favorite place to be was at the Island playground, a gathering place for all the kids from the Island. During the summer, she spent as much time there as possible, doing arts and crafts and swimming in the pool. Her fondest memories reach back to the playground and to the director of summer activities, Anna Waring, a woman for whom Rebecca still has very warm feelings. Other activities that took place on the Island were summer dances in the old school, and even professional boxing matches.
What is very interesting in Rebecca's recollections of the Island is her sense that there was "a right and a wrong side of the Island." She says that "While everyone on the Island was pretty uniformly poor, those from 'the wrong side' showed it more - it was the way they cared for themselves and their families - everyone was poor but they were perceived as being somewhat 'trashy.' The children from that side of the Island were not well cared for and tended to be mean and troublemakers." Rebecca recalls that when she reached dating age, she had a crush on a boy from the other side of the Island and her Mom "had fits," even though the boy was very nice and well-behaved. This is a very interesting example of class divisions - people from town always referred to the "French Islanders" as being of a lower class, while at the same time the Islanders themselves were dividing themselves up into classes, as well.
Rebecca does not remember having had a lot of traditional Franco cooking
as she grew up. Her mother was very conscientious about providing healthy,
nutritious meals for her children; she didn't fry foods, allowed very little
junk food, and always served at least two vegetables at every meal. They
did have cretons and the same "puishe" that Paulette mentioned
in her interview, though Paulette loved it and Rebecca hated it. Rebecca
makes many of the same foods she grew up on, including cretons.
After a couple of failed marriages to Franco husbands, she is now very
happily married to a man whose Franco father came from Canada but whose
mother insisted that her children were "Irish and Scots only."
Barbara Ouellette has a yearning - an ache - for Frenchness. But it wasn't always that way. Growing up on French Island, she did not think of herself as Franco or as different in any way from any other child she knew, though she says she seldom left the Island except to go to school. For grades kindergarten through eighth grade she attended the same parochial school in Old Town, École St. Joseph, that both Paulette Ferland and Rebecca Nadeau-Oliver attended. Like them, Barbara also ceased speaking French regularly when she reached school age, though her older siblings had continued to speak it well after they had reached school age. In the home, Barbara's parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all spoke French regularly - and like Paulette, Barbara's grandmére spoke only French and so Barbara communicated with her in the language and understood everything that was said. The family also frequently listened to French records in the evenings. Looking back, Barbara realizes that the decision to make her stop using the French language as her primary means of communication was a way in which her mother tried to protect her from being different and from being targeted, both in public and by the nuns in the parochial school, who would insist upon English in and out of the classroom. Still, while she understands that the reasons were purely pragmatic, she is left with an aching need to know the language and to learn to speak it once again.
Barbara's grandparents, Amie Ouellette and Josephine Garceau Ouellette (paternal) and William Brillant and Demerise LeVasseur Brillant, came to the Island straight from Québec, and her parents lived there almost all their lives, as well. Her mother came at the age of five and still lives there at the age of eighty-three. Her family shared a two-family home with her paternal grandparents, with the five Ouellette children divided up between two bedrooms - a typical living arrangement among many of the Franco families on the Island. Barbara remained on the Island until she reached adulthood and moved to Connecticut where she met her husband, also a Franco. They now have a home in Old Town, only about a mile away from the Island.
Barbara has many good memories of her years growing up on the Island. She feels it was a good place to be, fun and secure - a true petit Canada. They had many typical Franco foods - fried pain, salmon pie, cretons, and crêpes, though they did not have ployes or tortiére. Barbara did not think of any of these things as "Franco foods," however - it was "just what we ate" and she thought it was what everyone else ate, too. Hearing family stories was another fun part of life. Her Uncle Nunn was "a real character," and her father as a child had been "full of mischief." This made for some funny stories that were told and retold, and Barbara loved hearing them,
"...especially when my father would tell about his brother Nunn and then my older brother would add stories, or when my father's family gathered and my father and uncle would talk about the tings they did to their sister, Tout, and she would get all upset. Oh, it was great fun - as children we would sit and listen and laugh. I have never forgotten that, though I'm very sure the stories were exaggerated over time. My mother also tells stories about my father and all the crazy things he did when he was young."
Her mother admits that she was in love with the mischievous Maurice by the time she was only twelve, and "she set her mind then that she would marry him." She was best friends with his sister and has wonderful stories to tell of spending time at the Ouellette family home where "Memére Ouellette was wonderful and fun to be around." Barbara's grandfather Ouellette was also fun to be around. He told her and her siblings that when he died, he was going to come back and pull their toes whenever he saw them walking barefoot. To this day, Barbara says, "If I have my feet uncovered when I'm in bed, I think for sure he is going to come and pull my toes!"
Even though Barbara's Mémére Brillant died when Barbara was only five, she still cherishes the memory of her. "She was so monumental in my life...my memories of her are very strong. What I remember most about her was her kindness and how she would pamper me and let me eat itty bitty cucumbers from her garden." Barbara's older sister is the proud possessor of a quilt that their Mémére made, and a Penobscot Indian sewing basket that belonged to her, as well. "She got them because she was the oldest when Mémére died, and I covet them every single day!!!"
A "real sticky point" with Barbara is her name - of the five children in the family, she is "the ONLY one who was not named after either an aunt, uncle, or mother - I stand alone." Neither did she have a nickname growing up, though her sisters did. Her oldest sister was called "Beau Bébé, which translated over the years as Boobie - when she was a teenager she stopped responding to that nickname." Michele was a traditional name for the males in her family. Her father's name was Maurice Jules Ouellette and her mother's name is Marie Meledore Brillant Ouellette, though everyone calls her Meledore - like so many French Catholic girls, she was given the first name Marie (or Mary), but called by her middle name.
Barbara's quest to retrieve her "Frenchness" began in earnest about twelve years ago when she attended a conference that was held at the University of Maine, a cooperative venture between the Franco-American Center and the Université d'Angers in France. She credits Rhea Côté Robbins with lighting the fires of Franco pride in her. Now, Barbara is very involved in Franco activities on the UMaine campus. At the end of the month, she will take part in a panel on "Franco-Americans and the Politics of Language," as part of statewide conference for high school and middle school social studies teachers:
"I absolutely never thought I would be on a panel doing the 'Franco thing.' I would not have dreamt that in a million years. I probably would never have thought I would be on any panel whatsoever, let alone a panel dealing with being Franco!! Who would be interested in that? Also, I would have thought, 'what the heck would I speak about?' Now, I know exactly what I will speak about, and it doesn't even have to be researched because I AM the research!"
Barbara believes that her "new found Franconess" has rubbed off on her husband, Gene, too. He is also Franco, from Connecticut, and the two of them share the same last name - a fact they thought was quite "a hoot" when they met and eventually married. Their shared last name was the only part of their common heritage that entered into their attraction to one another, however; they did not share stories about their Franco childhoods or talk about being Franco, especially because Gene had blocked out many of his own childhood memories. Now, however, he is proud of his French language and the fact that he can understand almost everything when it is spoken.
Barbara's yearning for her French roots will take her and Gene on a truly exciting adventure in the Spring when they fly to France and visit Paris and the French countryside for the first time. She has always wanted to go to France where her family's ancestors originated, so when a recent advertisement for low airfares caught her eye, she decided there is no time like the present: "I have been wanting for a long time to go to the place where my roots began," she says, "and by gosh, I am finally going to do it!!"
When I decided to interview three different women from French Island in order to compare and contrast their perceptions of growing up there and being Franco, I expected to get some wide-ranging responses. In the end, however, all three Franco women had very similar responses to my questions. All three felt French Island was a wonderful, warm, and secure place to grow up, a place where the French community was close-knit and where everyone knew and watched out for one another, though all three agreed that the Island had its own class divisions, too. Paulette and Rebecca saw it as a two-class community while Barbara feels it may have been divided up into as many as three or perhaps even four different levels. Family played a huge role in the lives of these Franco women when they were children and still does now that they are adults and have families of their own. All lived either with or around their grandparents and had constant interaction with their extended families - aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Music, good food, fun, and laughter were very present in their family gatherings and remain an important part of their lives today. All three women had a similar experience with French being taken away from them as a primary language when they entered kindergarten. None of the three remember having thought of themselves as "Franco" when they were children, though they "knew they were French."
French Island - a cultural enclave across the bridge from Old Town, Maine, a close-knit community where Franco children and their families lived a vibrant, "authentic" Franco culture, mostly without even realizing they were doing so!